Consciously and unconsciously we are shaped by the seemingly random moments of serendipity that unfold in our lives. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t stumbled upon a tadpole pond in Hawaii at age 4 or become curious about a classmate’s drawing of the Batmobile in 3rd grade.
As Alison Gopnik recently described, as we grow older, our executive functions get far more narrowly focused than that of an infant.
It may be that suspending this transition and embracing serendipity helps us maintain the open-mindedness of an infant, fostering a mindset that can lead us to surprising discoveries and career paths.
Serendipity is also often experienced as a sign that there is a deeper connection between oneself and the world. Serendipitous events can also make us feel like the career path we are on is significant and true.
I recall a train ride back from Montreal during my college days when expressing my passion for cartooning and illustration to my friends caught the attention of a man sitting across the aisle. Rather than taking offense, the man offered me an apprenticeship with JC Suarez, the creative director of a magazine known for its ground-breaking design. When our energies didn’t align, the same man hooked me up with an apprenticeship to Seymour Chwast and Push Pin studios, an esteemed design studio in NYC — the first of several serendipitous opportunities in my career path.
A few years later, a random resume submission to Rockwell Group, netted me a meeting and an unexpected interview question: “Have you ever designed a parade?” While most creatives would have been taken aback by this inquiry, for me it was a stroke of luck. I had spent considerable time casually sketching up costume ideas for my wife’s projects, and as result, landed the job designing seven floats for a Disney World parade based on Pixar movies.It was a transformative moment that marked my transition from 2D to spatial experiences, broadening my horizons as an innovator.
But it was designing the experience for a museum for Walt himself that proved to be most profound. It occurred during our first meeting with Walt Disney’s daughter Diane. As I introduced myself as a cartoonist responsible for sketching out the museum experience, she turned and said, “A cartoonist. I didn’t know you’re a cartoonist. No wonder you’re so intuitive.” I was totally flattered but then gripped by an uneasy feeling from the distant past: a childhood memory of creating a “Ricky Rat” character with a group of friends hellbent on taking over the world from Mickey Mouse.
I remember that when Walt died, we even went so far as to celebrate the demise of our arch nemesis and planned Ricky Rat’s installation as chief rodent. While that never happened, here I was 35 years later designing a museum for Walt.
These experiences are reminders that opportunities often arise from surprising places, and whether it’s being a little too loud on a train, supporting a spouse’s costume business, or starting a creative club with a ragtag group of kids, embracing serendipity and remaining open to new possibilities can lead us down vibrant and fulfilling roads.
As innovators, we should choose paths that shine with vibrancy and life, guided sometimes by the most serendipitous of encounters.